- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 16, 2002

After tonight, the Wizards' final game of the season, we will watch and wait. We will watch Michael Jordan rest his sore right knee, even though we won't really be able to see him. We will know he is resting, and that will be enough for the drama to begin. Then we will watch and listen for bits and pieces of Jordan's progress on the court as he tests his 39-year-old knees.
Then we will wait breathlessly to learn whether Jordan will return to play.
Wake up, Wizards fans. It's "Groundhog Day."
If you liked last year's Jordan flirtation, then you will love what lies ahead. Here is summer vacation for Wizards fans, according to coach Doug Collins:
"For [Jordan], the most important thing will be resting for a couple of months," Collins said yesterday while delivering a State of the Jordan report after practice at MCI Center. "He told me he feels he needs three hard months to find out if he can play. That will probably be July, August and September. My guess would be that he will lay low, get through the draft, and then start the stuff he needs to do and then make the decision."
We have all been here before.
I think Jordan will return for a second season, but the Wizards are covering their bases just in case. According to Collins, they will be approaching the NBA Draft with the same mindset that they had last year without Jordan in their plans.
"Last year we went into the draft with the idea of him not playing, and we drafted with that in mind," Collins said. "He had broken ribs at the time, and he wasn't sure if he was going to be in shape. This year is very similar. We have to draft and do everything in the offseason with the idea that he is not going to play. He is coming off knee surgery, and there has been one more year on his body of wear and tear.
"If he plays, that would be great," Collins said. "That will be gravy for us because Michael, if he is able to play next year, I think will be even better than he was this year. Before he had three years off, and now his awareness of what he has to do, at this age, to play the way he wants to play, is there now. He never had to go through before what he did this year to try to play. I think he even knows his body better."
Gravy? I think meat and potatoes is more like it. Granted, the Wizards made significant strides this year, going from 19 wins last year to 36 this season before tonight's season finale against New York at MCI Center, exceeding what I expected them to do (I figured 35 wins would be a resounding success). But what they did was develop some good components for a team Richard Hamilton, Brendan Haywood, Etan Thomas and some of their other younger players but not the impact player they need. They've got the side dishes and the trimmings, but Jordan remains the main course, and the Wizards are probably at least a year away from finding that impact player to replace him, through either free agency or the draft. So the Wizards need that second year from Jordan to continue their climb out of the abyss.
If Jordan does return, Collins sees a different place for him on the court at guard and not the three position he played this year. "We have to get bigger at the three spot," Collins said. "If Michael does play next year, I would like for him to play guard. I thought this year the bigger guys who could really pound on him knocked him around, and I don't want him to have to play through that next year."
As far as the supporting cast, Collins was pleased with what they achieved this year. "I thought as a team we got basically the most out of our team this year," he said. "I wish we could have won four or five more games. But I don't think anyone would point to us as underachievers."
But the coach also said they need to make changes to get better, and the way Collins talked, the most important person in the immediate future of the team may be strength and conditioning coach Jim Hughes. "We have got to make changes," he said. "I don't know what those will be, but we have to be a better defensive team. We have to be physically stronger and be able at the end of games to be good and strong enough to be able to play through contact and be able to execute under pressure. Those are the areas that really hurt us, especially when we lost Michael. We have to win a higher percentage of those games next year.
"Guys have got to get stronger," Collins said. "[Richard Hamilton] averaged 20 points a game for us this year, but he has to get physically stronger so that he will be able to withstand the season. This year, probably more than any, he has played both ends of the court, and that takes its toll. So he will have to get stronger."
You would think a team with a player named Popeye would be strong enough.
During the offseason, though, we won't be paying much attention to Rip Hamilton's bench press or Kwame Brown's squats in the weight room. We will watch Jordan rest, and then endure another summer waiting to see whether spring time continues for the Wizards franchise or whether the organization will return to the cold days of winter before Jordan put on a jersey.
It's "Groundhog Day."

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